Guest Post: Blakeley on light rail for Wellington

A guest post by GWRC candidate Roger Blakeley:

The numbers that you have used appear to be taken from the 2013 Public Transport Spine Study (PTSS), which is available on the GWRC website.


You say that we have ‘ignored evidence’. That is not correct. We have studied the PTSS, and our analysis is that it is seriously deficient for the following reasons:


*The route selection was poor. It chose a Y shaped route from the railway station, with one leg going to Kilbirnie and one leg going to Newtown. This required unnecessary cost of an extra Mt Victoria tunnel. It also did not link well with the development growth areas, and therefore did not capture the potential ridership. The route chosen overstated the costs and understated the benefits.


* The result was, as you say, that the BCR was miniscule.


* The 8 out of the 11 candidates for the Wellington Constituency who are supporting light have been woking with transport analysts from the Fair Intelligent Transport (FIT) group. FIT has proposed a light rail spine route from the Railway station to CBD, Taranaki St, Wallace Street, Wellington Hospital, Newtown, Kilbirnie and the Airport. It links well with development growth areas in Te Aro, Adelaide Rd, and Kilbirnie, It connects to the airport. Feeder bus services would connect to the light rail, following international best practice.


* FIT has calculated costs based on recent actual construction costs of light in France. Light rail costs have come down in recent years, with improvements in technology. The estimated cost for the railway station to airport light rail spine is between $450M and $650M depending on route. The lower cost is for an alternative route along Constable St. The space is tight but manageable . The higher cost alternative is a route by the zoo and a tunnel under Mt Albert to Kilbirnie. 


The capacity of the proposed light spine would be three times the capacity of two Mt Victoria tunnels (12,000 persons per hour versus 4,000 persons per hour). The cost of the proposed extra Terrace Tunnel and extra Mt Victoria tunnel and 4 lane highway to the airport is $1 billion plus. That is, light would have three times the capacity and half the cost of the NZTA proposal. It would be a substantially better public investment.


I am sure you will have visited Europe, North America and Australia where many cities have adopted light rail. The reason is that international cities have recognised that building more motorways, more tunnels or lanes for private cars does not solve congestion; it creates more demand for more cars and more congestion. Public transport is a far more efficient way of transporting large numbers of people to a common destination such as the CBD or the airport, than cars (be they driven or self-driven). That is why progressive cities around the world have chosen light because the improved service standards have attracted  motorists to shift out of their cars onto public transport. I heard Transport Minister Simon Bridges saying at the announcement on the Govt half-funding of the Auckland City Rail Link:  ‘we can’t just keep adding more lanes onto motorways’.


On funding, my view is that the $1billion budget in the Roads of National Significance (RoNS) for the roading proposal would not be needed if light is implemented. Part of that could be used to pay the Government’s half share in the Wellington light rail (total cost estimate $450M to $650M), as it has for other public transport projects such as the Auckland City Rail Link. The other half could come from a Public Private Partnership. Investors overseas have seen light rail as an attractive investment because of the returns. There has already been an expression of interest by an international investor in Wellington light rail.


The group of 8 GWRC candidates are asking for light to be put back on the and rigorously evaluated against other options in the ‘Get Wellington Moving’ Project. This would include re-doing the PTSS study. If the BCR stacks up we would expect the proposal to be subject to commercial analysis including detailed route options, and that could include a private sector investor partner. Light rail would only proceed if it stacked up against that exacting commercial analysis. 


If you would like to see further information about our proposal, the link below is to an opinion piece in the DomPost on 2 September 2016:–and-russell-tregonning-the-case-for-light-rail-for-wellington


I understand the comments you made were based on the 2013 PTSS study. I hope I have made it clear that we have gathered further evidence which demonstrates the shortcomings of that study.  In that context, your comments about myself and the other named candidates are not fair.

It’s good to have debate on this. I’d just make three points.

  1. I’m wary of candidates saying we can just select a better route than the official study (which GWRC commissioned) which spent a huge amount of time on these issues
  2. Even if one accepts a different route halves the cost, I don’t see how it significantly increases the benefits and hence the BCR might move from 0.05 to 0.10 – still miniscule.
  3. It is not a choice between cars/tunnels and light rail. It is between light rail (BCR 0.05 to 0.10) and a bus rapid transport (BCR 0.87 to 1.55).

UPDATE: Blakeley responds:

Thanks for publishing my comments on Kiwiblog today.


Like you, I welcome the debate, because the issues are important. You have made three comments at the end of my post, which deserve an answer. Here is my response to each of your points:


1   “I’m wary of candidates saying we can just select a better route than the official study (which GWRC commissioned) which spent a huge amount of time on these issues”.  My response is:


  • My previous comments explained that the candidates have been working with transport analysts from the Fair Intelligent Transport (FIT) group. The FIT analysts selected the proposed route, not the GWRC candidates. FIT suggested that further analysis on an alternative route  is warranted (described in my guest post) that would have fewer costs and more benefits, compared with the route in the 2013 Public Transport Spine Study (PTSS).


  • Regarding  “the official study (which GWRC commissioned) which spent a huge amount of time on these issues”, the question  is: did the consultants for the 2013 PTSS study have hands-on international experience of design and implementation of light rail systems?


  • When other cities have considered light rail solutions, they have submitted their conclusions to international peer review by qualified experts on light rail systems. This was done in Manchester which modified its proposals in accordance with the recommendations of that review. No such international peer review was invited on the light rail option proposed in the Wellington 2013 PTSS study.


  • There have been further developments internationally on light rail systems since the Wellington 2013 PTSS. For example, analysis of light rail systems in France by three senior north American transit engineers, Greg Thompson, Tom Larwin and Tom Parkinson, was published in late 2014, see link:  This was published after the 2013 PTSS, but the analysis was available to the FIT transport analysts who proposed the alternative route for Wellington in 2016.


2.“Even if one accepts a different route halves the cost, I don’t see how it significantly increases the benefits and hence the BCR might move from 0.05 to 0.10 – still miniscule”.  My response is:


  • The consultants who conducted the 2013 PTSS chose to discount the potential ridership of light rail on the basis of a survey of Wellingtonians that concluded that we do not like having to transfer from one public transport vehicle to another e.g. light rail to bus or vice versa. This is contrary to international evidence which shows that commuters are quite happy to transfer from light rail to bus or vice versa. Because light rail travels in its own corridor which is congestion-free, even with a transfer to a bus for the final part of the journey, light rail will get them to their destination much faster than private car or bus. The consultant on the PTSS study appears to have made the assumption on the basis of that survey that Wellingtonians are different to the rest the world. This assumption ignored the evidence from cities overseas which have seen an immediate  jump in ridership of public transport of as much as 25% when light rail is introduced, because of the speed of trip and standard of service. As a result, the potential ridership and benefits of light rail were significantly understated.


  1. “It is not a choice between cars/tunnels and light rail. It is between light rail (BCR 0.05 to 0.10) and a bus rapid transport (BCR 0.87 to 1.55)”. My response is:


  • We need to be clear what the 2013 PTSS meant by ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ (BRT) in Wellington. What it was proposing was a ‘Bus Priority System’ where buses would get priority at traffic lights over other traffic. That does not comply with the internationally accepted definition of ‘Bus Rapid Transit’, which is that buses will operate in dedicated lanes which are ‘congestion-free’. Under a ‘Bus Priority System’, buses will get priority at traffic lights, but will still be subject to all the other causes of congestion on our roads. A true ‘Bus Rapid Transit’ system would require two dedicated bus lanes in each direction, so that one bus can pass another bus that has stopped to pick up or drop off passengers. Our Wellington streets are too narrow to allow room for two dedicated bus lanes in each direction.


  • The capacity of a ‘Bus Priority System’ in Wellington would be 6,000 persons per hour.  While there are some benefits of priority at traffic lights, this is only marginally better than our current bus system. By contrast, as noted in my reply to your initial comments, light rail in Wellington would have the capacity to transport 12,000 persons per hour. The reason for the much greater capacity of light rail than a ‘Bus Priority System’ is that light rail is operating in its own congestion-free corridor, and because light rail vehicles with multiple doors can load and unload passengers much faster than buses with one or two doors.


  • I do not agree with your claim that it is a choice between light rail and bus rapid transit, not light rail and cars and tunnels. Wellington needs an enduring solution to traffic congestion, including in the Basin Reserve area and the city centre. As explained above, the proposed ‘Bus Priority System’ will not provide that;  it would only be a marginal enhancement on the present congestion. On the other hand, light rail provides for double the present capacity of public transport, and provides the incentive to get people out of their cars and onto public transport because of the greater speed of trip and standard of service. Based on international experience of the immediate uptake of public transport when light rail is introduced, the volume of private cars on the road will be significantly reduced and there will be no need for additional tunnels and lanes. It is therefore a choice between light rail and ‘cars/tunnels’. My initial comments explained that light rail provides three times the capacity at half the cost of more tunnels and lanes.


  • The BCR analysis needs to be repeated using international evidence of the uptake of ridership with light rail, and taking account of the reduced costs and increased benefits of the whole transport system with a light rail solution.  I am confident that will give a greatly increased BCR compared with the ‘miniscule’ BCR in the 2013 PTSS. All that the group of 8 GWRC candidates are asking for is a comprehensive, rigorous analysis of the options by an independent consultant with international hands-on experience of design and implementation of light rail, bus and roading systems.


David, I appreciate that you have already given me a significant space on your blog. As you say, it is good to debate the issues, and I think it is important that your readers can see the further information I have provided here in response to your points.

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